Studying Sleep for Safety’s Sake

The FAA’s Functional Genomics team is conducting cutting-edge research to better understand the relationship between fatigue and aviation safety, helping shape a safer future in the skies.

A yawning pilot.

By Callie Dosberg, FAA Office of Communications

Ahhhh, sleep. It’s a universal human need, and if you’ve ever felt run down you might say you can’t put a price tag on a good night’s rest.

Researchers from the FAA’s Functional Genomics team, part of Aviation Safety at the Civil Aviation Medical Institute (CAMI), are studying the impact of fatigue on aviation safety to better understand impacts and risks. This research supports the agency’s safety mission by revolutionizing what we know and understand about fatigue, and could change how it is detected and managed.

“The priority at the end of the day is saving lives,” said Dr. Hilary A. Uyhelji, FAA’s Functional Genomics Research Team Coordinator. “Fatigue is a huge risk factor that practically every person can encounter, and, at some time or another, may be involved in work where a fatiguing condition could be deadly or could result in serious injury to themselves or others.

“I think we have an opportunity to improve aviation safety and save lives by detecting this safety risk through a new approach.”

Photo of the FAA’s Functional Genomics team
Back row, left: David Hutchings and Dr. Scott Nicholson. Front row: Vicky White, Susan Munster, and Dr. Hilary Uyhelji

Listen to a segment of an audio interview with FAA researcher Dr. Hilary Uyhelji where she discusses this fascinating work and how this research advances aviation safety.

The FAA Functional Genomics Research team works to identify molecular signals of aviation safety dangers. The team’s focus is searching for blood-based genetic indicators, or biomarkers, useful in testing for fatigue-related performance impairment, which one day could lead to innovative approaches for fatigue risk management. For example, the team is working to develop a molecular tool to detect whether fatigue contributed to aviation accidents — in other words, a human flight data recorder to improve postmortem accident investigations.

But the team isn’t just trying to identify fatigue-related causes of accidents. It’s also working to determine how they can be prevented by using identified biomarkers to measure fatigue — similar to the blood alcohol measurements used by law enforcement. Although the team studies multiple kinds of biomarkers, they typically focus on more transient biomarkers such as ribonucleic acid (RNA). While deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the genetic information we inherit from our parents, RNA is made from the DNA template as needed and then degrades. In this sense, RNA biomarkers could theoretically be used one day to gauge if someone is fatigued and might benefit from a nap before their next work shift.

Vicky White loads samples and reagents into a machine for extraction of RNA from human blood.

Because fatigue affects people differently, FAA researchers are exploring the role RNA biomarkers play in these differences. The team has identified biomarkers that are candidates to predict performance deficits in response to sleep loss, and is working to validate these biomarkers through additional research.

“Some folks can have sleep loss and in some measurements have little to no impact on different aspects of performance,” said Uyhelji. “Just like we have efforts for personalized medicine, we’re exploring whether we could use genomics for a more personalized fatigue risk strategy that takes into account your unique risk factors as an individual.”

FAA researchers are currently conducting a large-scale study with experts at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to explore the effect on performance when sleep is reduced or mistimed.

“We anticipate that we will have a range of data in terms of cognitive or neurobehavioral performance indicators after this study,” said Uyhelji. “We’ll better understand if our participants’ attention is affected, do they engage in risk-taking behavior, et cetera. At the end of the day it’s not whether you experience sleep loss but how it affects you, and in the case of safe operations you want to be thinking clearly.”

Susan Munster reviews microarray results at a computer screen, whereby fluorescent pixel intensity is translated into information regarding RNA biomarkers increasing or decreasing expression under specific conditions.

As for how this research data could be applied, Uyhelji believes there are potential uses in post-mortem accident investigations. When a fatal accident occurs, you would know what genes to measure to help understand if fatigue impaired the pilot. This research also could have preventative diagnostic measures, perhaps through a finger-prick blood analysis to show whether a pilot is fatigued and could benefit from pre-flight rest.

“We really believe fatigue is a serious safety risk, not only in transportation — but think of all the medical workers working extended shifts in response to the pandemic,” said Uyhelji. “This is really important work and we are grateful to continue this research despite these challenging times.”

Cleared for Takeoff

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